Atlantic City, Sept. 18, 1983. It's the day after the glittering finable. A limousine whisks the first black Miss America, along with Pageant Chairman Albert Marks Jr., from Atlantic City to a press conference in New York. During the trip, caught up in the euphoria of the moment, Marks begins telling Vanessa Williams all the glories that lay in store for her during her reign. But within 10 minutes Vanessa, exhausted, falls blissfully asleep on his shoulder.

New York City, the Royal Ballroom at the Sheraton Centre, July 23, 1984. A shaken Vanessa is reading from a carefully prepared statement. "I am not a person who gives up.... It has never been my desire to injure the Miss America Pageant.... I must relinquish my title." That day Suzette Charles, first runner-up and lady-in-waiting, ascends to Vanessa's throne (page 82).

How in 10 months could something so right go so wrong? Yet there it was: A secret that Marks could not have known, that Vanessa herself, in her triumph, had all but forgotten, was retailed by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione in pictures worth a thousand unsavory words. To wit: One year prior to her coronation, Williams posed for Mount Kisco, N.Y. photographer Tom Chiapel with an unnamed female partner in a series of compromising positions. Williams claimed that she did the modeling "out of curiosity," that Chiapel betrayed her by promising "confidentiality" and then turning around and selling the raunchy shots to Penthouse once she'd become famous. Furthermore, she claims she never signed a model's release for the photographs. No matter, said Chairman Marks, the damage was done: The vestal image of Miss America had been sullied. "As a man, a father, a grandfather, as a human being," he said, reaching to express his outrage, "I have never seen anything like these photographs. Ugh. I can't even show them to my wife."

The Pageant Board of Directors, which had been going to exonerate Williams until Federal Express delivered copies of the offending photos during the course of their meeting, was similarly appalled. American Greetings Corp., one of the pageant's four major sponsors (the others are Gillette, McDonald's and Nestlé), promptly canceled advertisements in five magazines featuring Williams. The revulsion was shared by several Miss America titlists, including the outspoken Venus Ramey, who won 40 years ago. "She is a slut," says Ramey. "Miss Americas are not picked to be the prettiest or most talented. They are picked to be representative of young womanhood in the United States." Jacquelyn Mayer Townsend, Miss America 1963, is in accord with the board's decision but tends to be sympathetic to Williams. "A lot of young people make mistakes," she says. "Vanessa needs a lot of love at this point. I think the magazine helped ruin her. They were greedy."

In fact Penthouse and rival Playboy are greedy for readers. Facing tough competition from X-rated videos, both magazines are fighting to maintain their readership. (Playboy, for example, was plainly also seeking publicity at the same time as Penthouse. Hugh Hefner's magazine assigned Ron Reagan to cover the Democratic Convention.) The Miss America photographs were first offered to Playboy six months ago—for a reported six figures—and turned down. The magazine's photography director, Gary Cole, says he had doubts about the model's release, which was "a loosely worded statement that seemed to give permission to use the photographs for promotion purposes." Cole also had reservations about the agent peddling Chiapel's photographs because of his reference to Williams as a "hot chick." In addition, he was not certain that the alleged release was for photographs of Williams' lesbian poses. Says Hefner, "Vanessa Williams is a beautiful woman. There was never any question of our interest in the photos. But because they clearly weren't authorized and because they would be the source of considerable embarrassment to her, we decided not to publish them. We were also mindful that she was the first black Miss America."

At Penthouse, Guccione says Hefner's protestations of concern about costing Williams her tiara is "a lot of crap." Guccione, who wears enough gold chains around his neck to free his car if he ever is stuck in the snow, says he himself is "not without feeling and sympathy" for Williams. But what he had before him was "a simple business choice: whether I get Vanessa into a riff with the pageant people versus the desirability of these photographs in the eyes of my readers. Of course I went with my readers."

Guccione dealt directly with Chiapel and the publisher claims he went to extraordinary lengths to make sure the model's release was authentic—he turned his lawyer loose on the matter, investigated Chiapel, took affidavits from others present at the shooting two years ago (he declines to name the witnesses) and even verified Williams' signature on the release with a handwriting expert. "I would never publish a photograph of a girl without a release," he says. "Otherwise they would take me to the cleaners." Barring some dramatic legal turn, Guccione's gamble will pay off—particularly in terms of newsstand sales. The magazine, which usually sells at least 3.4 million copies (at $3), is anticipating sales of 5 million copies (at $4), a potential windfall of more than $4 million over its average newsstand sale.

The day before Vanessa's decision to abdicate, her father, Milton, was telling reporters, "They'll have to pull the crown off her head—my daughter is a feisty young woman." She chose to step down despite pageant attorney Leonard Horn's concession that there was "no specific language in the [Miss America] contract saying that she cannot pose in the nude" and that the only leverage the pageant had over her was "moral."

Meantime, Vanessa is anxious to get on with her career. She has been dropped from an upcoming show with Bob Hope at the Carleton Celebrity Dinner Theatre in Bloomington, Minn. But Joseph Papp says he still wants to audition her for the part of Musetta opposite Linda Ronstadt in the Public Theater's production of La Bohème. "It's a bunch of foolishness," says Papp. "It's self-righteousness on the part of the pageant, puritanism of the worst kind."

Naturally, Guccione agrees. He suggests that Williams seize the day and capitalize on her notoriety. "I can't give you the name of a single former Miss America, and beautiful women are my business. Okay, Bess Myerson comes to mind. But Vanessa Williams will never be forgotten."

  • Contributors:
  • Giovanna Breu,
  • Nancy Jacobsen,
  • Linda Marx,
  • Cable Neuhaus,
  • Richard K. Rein,
  • Leah Rozen.